Technology helps UMKC professor track criminals

Each dot on this screen represents a criminal and the lines show their links. Kansas City law enforcement is using the patterns for a new approach to reducing crime.

Andrew Fox, UMKC assistant professor of criminology, doesn’t cuff bad guys but he does work with the anti-crime No Violence Alliance (NoVA).

Criminals are numbers to him, dots on a computer screen. He uses police intelligence to create social networks that link suspects and their associates.

The technology is used in medicine, for instance, to link contacts in sexually transmitted diseases.

“In a lot of ways, violence is like a disease and we can respond to it like a disease,” Fox said.

Andrew Fox in his UMKC office.

Kansas City police and federal agents, state and federal prosecutors, social service providers and others in NoVA use the data to target certain people, either for prison or for help.

The networks played in a recent 61-indictment sweep of alleged drug and gun offenders. They did as well in a recent “call-in,” when 120 suspects were asked to attend talks intended to persuade them to give up crime.

Fox believes the elaborate social networks – a high tech and supercharged version of what police have done for decades – are more advanced here than in other cities that have used the alliance model to successfully reduce violence.

Police everywhere will use them more and more, he said, and they will merge with geographic based “hot spot” policing, as the two have already merged in Kansas City.

Fox, 30, said he was fortunate to get the position with the alliance last year, in his first year at UMKC.

Before that he did similar work studying gang connections that was funded by homeland security grants.

The networks begin with years of police reports on contacts with suspects, who are given numbers. A NoVA network starts with suspects in murders, shootings or other serious assaults. Other police reports link them to other people and those other people to yet more people. Normally, police go “down the rabbit hole” to find such links after a crime but the network data allows more.

“You kind of give them the rabbit hole instead of them having to build it each time,” Fox said. “It’s a little more proactive on a larger scale.”

For NoVA, which uses arrests and social services to fight crime, the networks identify key leaders.

“We’re not saying they’re the most criminal, we’re trying to identify people who are the most critical to deliver a message to the network.”

Persuade them to leave crime, Fox said, and they can persuade others. Send them to prison and they are not easily replaced.

The strategy of approaching everyone in a network also sends a message: “If you or any of your friends engage in violence, law enforcement is going to start going after all of you.”

Shoot someone and your friends will pay, and many of them already have outstanding warrants.

The social networks also link the many law enforcement groups in NoVA, he said. “We kind of have a road map to work together.”

Fox said he is transitioning out of putting the networks together, having trained police crime analysts to do it.

His job will be to evaluate the project and report progress, he said. For instance, he will study what mix of social service programs and arrests produced what results.

It is like disease work, he said, looking at what pill had the best results at what dose.

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